Simanaitis Says

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WHAT DOES the U.S. have in common with Liberia and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (aka Burma)?


These are the only three countries in the world that continue to avoid official adoption of the meter, liter and gram. The metric system is also known as SI, the Systeme International d’Unités, the International System of Units.

Well. There’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s French.

No, not exactly.

On July 13, 1790, Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State at the time, gave the U.S. House of Representatives a Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States. At its basis was a general decimalization to correct things that had generally grown haphazardly over time.

A real mess it was—and still is. The Imperial gallon, for instance, is 1.2009499255 U.S. gallons, that is, about 20 percent larger to the consternation of those considering mpg of British and U.S. cars. Miles per gallon? But which gallon?

As an example, back when Ford updated the Fiesta model in 2010, a fleet of these cars toured the U.S. hyping their superlative mpg. R&T analyzed matters in March 2010 with “Hybrid: Perception vs. Reality,” which included mpg data for a gasoline-engine Ford Fiesta, hybrid Toyota Prius and diesel Volkswagen Golf TDI.

Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Golf TDI and Toyota Prius, R&T, March 2010.

Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Golf TDI and Toyota Prius; R&T, March 2010.

Within a month of the article’s publication, it became known that these Fiestas had been equipped with trip computers calibrated in Imperial gallons.

Quelle surprise.

In April 2010, the magazine corrected the Fiesta’s stint-by-stint and overall data; for instance, its overall average of 40.8 mpg Imperial became 34.0 miles per U.S. gallon. Data for the Toyota Prius and VW TDI needed no recalculation, 54.5 and 42.7 mpg U.S., respectively.

But back to the metric system. Leaders of the French Revolution, 1789 – 1799, promoted measurement based on logic and natural phenomena. They also wisely rejected a proposal by mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace to swap base 10 for a duodecimal (base-12) system.

A period attempt to sell the new system. I love the way tradesmen and aristos happily interact., with nary a single guillotine in sight.

A period attempt to sell the new system, France, c. 1790. I love the way tradesmen and aristos happily interact.

However, the guillotine gave the metric system a bad name from which it still suffers, at least to some.

Back in the 1970s, there was an attempt by the U.S. Congress to adopt metrication. As R&T’s engineering editor, I was up to my slide rule in this. Already mixed in its English inches, European liters of displacement and U.S. gallons, for a while the magazine was  into dual dimensioning, wheelbases in inches and millimeters as one example; power in SAE net hp and kW as another.

BMW 320i; R&T, February 1980, in the midst of the magazine's dual dimensioning.

BMW 320i Road Test data. R&T, February 1980, in the midst of the magazine’s dual dimensioning.

In retrospect, it was all a waste of time and paper.

The U.S. Metric Board existed between 1978 and 1982.

The U.S. Metric Board existed between 1975 and 1982.

There was a U.S. Metric Board back then promoting things like mile/kilometer sign postings. But by 1982, this organization got folded into the U.S. Department of Commerce, where it was allowed to die quietly.

A product of those wild and crazy years, 1978 - 1982.

A product of those wild and crazy years, 1975 – 1982.

Today, the U.S. as a country and we as car enthusiasts continue in dual American/SI thinking. Almost all science and engineering endeavors are accomplished in SI units. Yet miles per hour, quarts of milk and pounds of butter are how it is.

With plenty of good stories, like the well-intentioned driver who complained that 100 km/h seems so much faster than a good, honest 60 mph. Or gasoline being so much cheaper in liters than gallons: “Why, it’s a quarter the price!”

Yeah, 1/3.78541, to be specific.


Whatever Happened to the Metric System? How America Kept its Feet, by John Bemelmans Marciano, Bloomsbury, 2014.

According to Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet, there are those who say “Metric is definitely Communistic.” It’s also observed that others call metrication “an Arab plot ‘with some Frenchies and Limeys thrown in.’ ”

As I’ve noted before (, I decry the politicizing of such things.

I must read Marciano’s book. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014


  1. Bill Urban
    September 12, 2014

    Perhaps Marciano explores why the metric Crescent wrench never caught on (?).

  2. Bill Urban
    September 12, 2014

    It does look as if we’re past using cubic inches for displacement, but gosh, why couldn’t those Frenchies and Limeys simply have rounded off a “litre” to 60 cu. in.? ( 🙂

  3. Bill Rabel
    September 14, 2014

    At least our liquor is sold in metric measure…
    Another explanation after the American revolution was that the merchants in the NE states wanted to restore commerce with their biggest trading partner, England. This led to continued use of the English system of weights and measures. It also was characterized of rejection of all things French, including the metric system, to demonstrate our alliance with the English.

    • simanaitissays
      September 14, 2014

      Ok, but what about Lafayette, Jacques Lafitte and the War of 1812?
      Just curious….

    • simanaitissays
      September 14, 2014

      Though I must also confess I get most of my history from Lux Radio Theater.

    • simanaitissays
      September 14, 2014

      And Classic Comicbooks.

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